What do working parents need? A supportive manager is a good start

June 23, 2021 - 7 min read
Raising children is a lifelong aspiration for many adults. But all too often, it’s an ambition that conflicts with another area of life: work.

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What the data say

Why it matters

The pandemic showed us how work can be completely at odds with parenting. With children staying home from school, 22% of parents in a Debt.com report stated that they would have to cut their hours and 9% said they would need to leave their job.

Women, who in many households are primary caregivers, were particularly affected. Three out of four working mothers in the United States seriously considered quitting their jobs in 2020 due to the stress of managing work and parenthood—and nearly 2.2 million women actually left the workforce.

When this happens, companies lose out too. Research shows significant positive effects of having gender-diverse teams in the workplace. Companies with a high number of women on the board outperform companies with low representation; gender-diverse organizations also see higher revenue. Most importantly, having more women in the workplace creates a better company for everyone.

Managers are in an ideal position to help these employees balance personal and professional responsibilities. With a bit of curiosity and empathy, managers can better understand the needs of these employees and help them do their best work.

BetterUp has a unique window into the needs of working parents through our coaching and personal development offerings for working parents. We collected data from BetterUp Members who signed up for coaching designed for working parents to understand their challenges better. Coaches tracked which topics were discussed in these sessions to identify these employees’ main concerns.

Here's what we learned.

What the data say

Although members discussed various topics during their coaching sessions, two subjects stood out significantly: well-being and communication.

working parents

BetterUp Labs data suggests that parents in our dataset actually had slightly better well-being than non-parents through the pandemic. While there are likely several explanations, these data suggest one explanation may be a high focus on well-being support during this time.

The fact that communication was an ongoing concern for working parents reflects, in part, how challenging and changeable the day-to-day balancing act is for working parents. It isn’t a single communication. Rather it is an ongoing series of adjustments, negotiations, and decisions about what to reveal and how. Many working parents are concerned about how juggling caregiving duties and work might reflect on their performance. Women are particularly hesitant to communicate their challenges openly for the fear that managers might view their struggle as a shortcoming.

Why it matters

The BetterUp data reflects how the pandemic took a toll on working parents and made it more difficult for them to continue their jobs. Some of these challenges are already going away as more people become vaccinated and children can attend school. But even in a post-COVID world, these BetterUp findings offer valuable lessons on how managers can support working parents—pandemic or not—and help them realize their full potential.

First, learn to recognize when working parents are running out of fuel. According to research by Great Place to Work and Maven, approximately 2.3 million working mothers in the U.S. were suffering from burnout due to “unequal demands of home and work” last year.

But don’t wait for signs of burnout. Offer working parents a flexible work environment and one where they don’t have to hide the fact that they have parental duties and concerns. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, working mothers want flexibility in where and when they work and the opportunity to integrate work and life while still moving up the career ladder. Meet these expectations by giving employees room to set their own schedule so they can fulfill their caregiving responsibilities.

Supporting working parents starts at the top. As you create a flexible, inclusive work environment, lead by example. Normalize balancing work and family by taking vacation days and working reasonable hours to spend time with your own friends and family. Parents shouldn’t be the only ones who sometimes shift their schedules to accommodate other activities.

Develop your compassionate leadership skills, so you’re better able to pick up on employees' unsaid needs. Check in on your team's well-being, make them feel safe to encourage honest communication, or connect working parents with relevant company resources. BetterUp Coach Alexia Roncero recommends paying attention to your intuition and withholding judgment to understand the “why,” to develop empathy.

The good news? You can learn empathy and compassion. As Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella says: "Empathy is a muscle, so it needs to be exercised."

Every BetterUp Coach offers tailored support based on the Member’s needs and personalized for individual strengths and growth areas. Our Coaches work with leaders (and parents) at all levels across Fortune 1000 companies to help them grow personally and professionally, whether that’s learning how to support the working parents on their teams or learning how to sustain themselves.


Published June 23, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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